Milton O. Reeves, of the Reeves family who once made steam traction engines and threshers, was associated with the Reeves Pulley Company in Columbus, Ind., at the end of the 19th century.
There, he invented a variable speed drive that used two pulleys with sliding split sheaves, just like the ones used for the variable speed drive on the early John Deere garden tractors, as well as to adjust the cylinder speed on combines.
To test his variable drive, he built a car in 1896, sold a few, and in the process developed an engine of his own.
After a couple of years, however, Reeves quit building cars and concentrated on the core business, the variable drive systems, and engines.
Building cars. In 1905, a man named Malcomson, who had backed Henry Ford at one point, decided to build his own car and ordered 500 Reeves 4-cylinder air-cooled engines; the venture fell through and Reeves was stuck with all those engines.
Naturally, he started building cars again, but again quit in 1910.
Reeves final fling at the automobile business came in 1910 when he, apparently believing that the more wheels the smoother the ride, redesigned an Overland chassis into a weird creation he dubbed the “Octoauto” and that he exhibited at the 1911 Indianapolis 500. It attracted lots of attention, probably because it was a radical departure from the accepted car configuration of the day.
The Octoauto had two front and two rear axles and was huge: over 20 feet in length with a 15-foot wheelbase, and despite the excitement at the Brickyard, it seems no orders came in to the Columbus factory. Undaunted, Reeves, remarking that he could “get as good results with six wheels as with eight,” removed one of the Octoauto’s front axles and introduced the 1.03 “Sextauto.”
Advertising claimed that the Reeves multiwheeled design made the cars ride “like a Pullman” and would “revolutionize automobile construction where comfort in riding is a consideration.”
It was also said that each tire would last longer, since it carried only one-eighth (or one-sixth) of the load instead of one-fourth, although it would seem that buying all those tires and carrying multiple spares might be a bit of a burden.
A prominent writer and philosopher of the day, Elbert Hubbard, who died, along with his wife, when the liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sank in 1915, apparently rode in an Octoauto and wrote the following about the experience, which I’ve paraphrased somewhat for brevity.
In the good old days when I used to take cattle to the Chicago Stock Yards,…my home was in the caboose for perhaps three days and three nights. It was a sad day when, instead of a regular caboose, they bundled the merry stockmen into a dinkey.”
Hubbard goes on to describe the caboose, with its two wheels at each corner, and the dinkey which had only one, as well as the ultra-smooth ride of a Pullman car which has three wheels at each corner.
He continues: A wheel lives its life exactly as a man does. A man will stand a great number of raps and kicks supplied by Fate, provided they are distributed over a long period of time, but when you come to concentrate them in a few years, months, or days, you destroy the man.
In the Reeves Octoauto, the load is distributed over eight wheels instead of four. In a four-wheeled auto, in case of hitting a rut, one wheel may for an instant carry half the load, and it is this sudden jolt that causes tire trouble.
You get enough of these shocks in a day, and your tire reaches its limit and explodes with a loud report. If you are running fast, you may lose control and the ditch gets you. So, if you can save your wheels from these severe jolts, you will prolong the life of the tire, the car and its occupants.
Hubbard tells of a ride he had in an Octoauto in Chicago where: The driver was a reckless fellow, and where:
We took the (busted up) pavement at the rate of twenty-five miles an hour, oblivious of the ruts.
Very few of these ruts were over three feet (apart), but so evenly was the weight distributed that before one wheel could really hit the bottom of a rut, the wheel behind was on firm footing and relieved the strain. This taking ruts and bumps without a jar is something that no man can possibly appreciate who has not experienced a ride in an Octoauto.
Hubbard added that the Octoauto Steers and controls exactly the same as a four-wheeled car, is The Only Easy-Riding Car in the World, is the only car in the world built on the principles of a Pullman Palace-Car, and is the Easiest Car in the World on Tires.
One has to wonder why Mr. Hubbard didn’t, after writing so eloquently about the advantages of the Octoauto, buy one for his own use, but there’s no record that he did.
Besides being large, and not very attractive, although they may have appealed to the buyer who wanted something different, the cars were expensive: the Octoauto carried a price tag of $3,200, while the presumably smaller, and more inexpensive to make Sextauto, was a whopping $4,500 or $5,000, depending upon the source.
It seems that just the prototype Octoauto and only two Sextautos were built and there’s no record of any ever being sold; Milton Reeves went back to concentrating on his pulley and engine business and gave up making cars forever.